Fr. Calvin Robinson Exposes the Folly of “Dual Integrities”
The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) has been, since its inception in 2009, a house divided. The denomination was formed in the tumultuous aftermath of the Episcopal Church’s (TEC) embrace of homosexual unions and her General Convention’s confirmation of a partnered homosexual bishop from New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, in 2003. Opposition to those moves brought together an odd coalition (which ultimately became the ACNA). It was made up of evangelicals, charismatics, and anglo-catholics, groups historically divided from one another on important questions like the nature and number of the sacraments and less important ones like clergy vestments and the correct number of candles (if any) that ought to be allowed on the Communion table.
Perhaps the disagreement that runs deepest and divides even evangelical from evangelical and charismatic from charismatic within the ACNA is the practice of women’s ordination (WO). For Anglicans, the debate involves not only questions of biblical interpretation but also the sacraments and whether or not a woman can validly consecrate the Communion elements of bread and wine. Anglo-catholics, in particular, deny that possibility, a denial that, according to their sacramentology, necessarily elevates the debate to one of salvific importance. These divisions mean that some members of the ACNA do not recognize the holy orders of others and that some cannot take Communion from others. And this is why, from the very beginning, the ACNA has been less a communion and more of a confederacy.
While the ACNA constitution prohibits the election of female bishops (rendering the province very softly complementarian), it also prohibits the province from making any general ruling on WO binding upon all dioceses. That means that each diocese is free to make its own decision about WO. There are dioceses like the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas that disallow WO altogether and dioceses like Churches For the Sake of Others that militantly promote it. Two liberal churches in that diocese left the ACNA last year citing the ACNA’s lack of hospitality to sexual minorities and ordination of women, among other issues, as the impetus for the exit. In between, some dioceses, like the Diocese of the Living Word, allow for women deacons only but no priests while others, like those dioceses affiliated with the Reformed Episcopal Church, do not ordain female deacons or priests but do retain the office of deaconess.
All this explains why, within the ACNA, it is widely understood that WO is the elephant in the room, the great beast with the most potential to divide the denomination in two. This powder keg also explains, as we will see, the controversy that has erupted over Fr. Calvin Robinson’s dismissal from last weekend’s Mere Anglicanism conference.
Mere Anglicanism, sponsored by the Diocese of South Carolina, has been a mainstay for Anglicans looking for deep, intelligent engagement with theology, philosophy, and culture. Mere Anglicanism owes its name to C.S. Lewis’ famous work of apologetics, Mere Christianity. On its website, Mere Anglicanism describes itself as, “An event-oriented organization that provides the tools and resources to disciple, train, and educate lay and clergy leaders. We bring in thinkers and teachers who help people become informed, equipped leaders and who ‘take theology home with them.’” While the conference has featured top-tier Anglican speakers like N.T. Wright and Alister McGrath, many non-Anglicans like Peter Kreeft and William Lane Craig have also shared the rostrum. Among the speakers at this year’s conference, alongside Fr. Calvin Robinson, were D.A. Carson, Carl Trueman, and Sam Allberry, each contributing to this year’s overall theme: “Speaking the Truth in Love: The Church and the Challenge of the New Morality.”
To provide more specificity regarding the content of his particular talk, the director of Mere Anglicanism, the Reverend Jeff Miller, wrote an email to Fr. Robinson on October 18th, 2023 which Fr. Robinson has subsequently made public on his X (formerly Twitter) page. The email reads in part, “We would like you to consider speaking on this topic: ‘Critical Theory: Antithetical to the Gospel?’ Our hope would be that you could briefly define Critical Theory and its origins, as well as show how it has infected much of the thinking of the Western world and then address why Critical Theory and the Gospel are irreconcilable metanarratives.”
Fr. Robinson is a bold and gifted speaker who has been an outspoken opponent of every form of critical theory for quite some time. He also has roots in Anglicanism, having first sought ordination in the Church of England before officials predictably cut the process short. The declining and theologically heterodox English church did not quite know how to handle Robinson’s unvarnished anglo-catholicism and implacable opposition to the LGBTQ movement, women’s ordination, and leftist ideology. From there, Robinson affiliated with the Free Church of England and on November 3rd, 2023, he was ordained to the priesthood in the Old Catholic Church. Fr. Robinson has never been shy about his theological commitments. As an Old Catholic, he remains strongly opposed to women’s ordination and highly critical of the Reformation which he describes as a mistake. “Reform is important,” Robinson wrote in a Substack post (linked above) explaining his move to Old Catholicism, “and the Church should always reform, but the Reformation failed in that task. The Church wasn’t reformed; instead, it splintered again.”
The Diocese of South Carolina which sponsors and hosts Mere Anglicanism is, by contrast, an historically evangelical diocese with some charismatic flair and a significant number of ordained women, some of whom possess powerful diocesan influence. As one might imagine, WO is a hot-button issue in South Carolina, especially when episcopal elections roll around. There are some in the diocese who would love to see the practice come to an end and some who jealously guard and defend it. This is probably why, despite Mere Anglicanism’s stated mission to educate and equip disciples, the conference has never dealt head-on with the WO debate.
I remember the Friday Fr. Robinson spoke well. I was putting the finishing touches on my sermon before Sunday and intermittently checking in on social media for any news about the conference. That’s where I saw the first exultant comments from attending friends and acquaintances of mine. “Calvin Robinson is calling out WO in the ACNA. Preach!” read one post on X. “Calvin Robinson just detonated a prophetic bomb in my city,” read another post on Facebook. I received text and signal messages about it the rest of the afternoon. Most of the people I have spoken to (and this is, of course, anecdotal) tell me that while some attendees expressed anger and some even walked out (see below), the talk was well received and some described a sense of relief that someone had finally “said what needed to be said.”
Fr. Robinson has since posted the full manuscript of his talk (along with his account of what followed) on his substack which you can read here. In brief, Fr. Robinson decided to focus his remarks not so much on defining and describing various critical theories, which he assumed the audience to be familiar with, but on how critical theories in general have become so powerfully destructive within the Western church. The two principal culprits in his view are feminism expressing itself in women’s ordination on the one hand and Martin Luther and the Reformation opening the way for Marxist revolutionary thinking on the other.
Feminism does away with the gendered complementarity that pervades God’s created order by asserting the interchangeability of the male and the female. Within that paradigm, there are no specifically feminine or specifically masculine roles. A woman can do all that a man can do and a man all that a woman can do. Accepting this idea, Fr. Robinson argues, paves the way for the gender and queer theory notion that men can be women and women can be men as well as the grievance/victim narrative of critical race theory. Women’s ordination provides entry into the church for all of these critical theories by enshrining the feminist notion of interchangeability. In the past it was understood that a woman could no more be a priest than a man could be a mother. Now women are ordained and men pretend to be mothers.
Martin Luther, similarly, did away with the authority of the church, Fr. Robinson claims, and replaced it with the authority of an individual’s conscience. Every man became his own pope and his own priest in the name of freedom. Karl Marx saw in Luther’s writings the beginning of a revolution that his own philosophy would bring to fruition. Marx would free the human person from enslavement to the false notion of a “God” which has really been a creation of humanity all along. This liberation would enable human beings to do away with the oppressive hierarchies once supposed to be divinely established and bring about a new order of justice and equality. By embracing Luther, the Western Protestant churches have embraced a revolutionary paradigm that renders them susceptible to critical theories rooted in Marxism.
Fr. Robinson’s connecting Luther to Marx is an acrobatic but familiar line of argument, similar to one that Roman Catholic apologists frequently employ, laying the liberal devolution of the West narrowly into the laps of the Reformers, conveniently ignoring the stronger and broader stream of humanist thought that gave birth to the Enlightenment. His remarks about feminism and WO are far more substantive and hit closer to the mark, undergirded as they were by his citations of scripture.
While most of those I spoke with agreed with the first half of his presentation on feminism and largely disagreed with his remarks about Luther and the Reformation, nobody had the impression that Fr. Robinson had said anything so egregious as to be removed from participating in the remainder of the conference. Indeed, after Fr. Robinson finished speaking, there was, according to Dr. Jady Koch who was present, a “prolonged ovation.” The director, the Reverend Jeff Miller, then took the stage and praised his courage. Bethel McGrew, another attendee, paraphrased Miller’s remarks in this way: “I’m thankful to Calvin for showing the courage of his convictions…I guarantee you’re going to hear someone with a different point of view this afternoon, but that’s what we’re here for, iron sharpening iron.” Several of those present report that when the director thanked Fr. Robinson for his courage, the auditorium broke out into a second round of applause.
And yet, as Jay Thomas writes in the North American Anglican, there were unmistakable signs of discord, “The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina allows women to be ordained as priests, and there were obviously female priests in the room. Thus, when Robinson spoke, you could feel the tension in the space; it was electric – painfully so. When Robinson started quoting from 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, there was a rustle, and a few people – notably male clerics – walked out. Let me say that again: when Robinson started reading from the Bible, clergy left the room. It was shameful.”
No one can be sure exactly what happened between Fr. Robinson’s talk on Friday and the events of the next day but by Saturday morning the mood of the Mere Anglicanism organizers had shifted dramatically. Here’s Fr. Robinson’s account (already linked above)
“The following day, Saturday 20th, I was called into a room with the Director [Jeff Miller] and his bishop [Chip Edgar], and abruptly chastised. I made a joke in an attempt to lighten the mood, saying I felt like I was in the headmaster’s office. The Director confirmed that is exactly how I should feel. I was essentially ‘told off’ for having rocked the boat. It seems he had received negative feedback and he buckled under the pressure. He told me I was disinvited from taking part in the rest of the event, including a joint panel and Q&A session I was scheduled to be involved in. I found this disappointing because the conference supposedly had a theme of truth telling. I appreciate that some of the other participants had more liberal perspectives than me, and I was looking forward to engaging in a good faith debate on this among a number of other topics. Alas, it was not to be.”
Subsequent to this meeting, Fr. Robinson posted on X and Facebook that he had been disinvited from further participation and the panel discussion and Anglican social media exploded. The vast majority of commenters expressed outrage at Fr. Robinson’s dismissal by the director and the bishop. Mere Anglicanism’s own Facebook posting about the event was inundated with negative comments. Several face-saving attempts were made by those supportive of the decision. John Dickson, a Wheaton College professor and author of the book, Hearing Her Voice: A Biblical Invitation for Women to Preach, and a speaker at the conference, wrote on X that Fr. Robinson was disinvited because, “He didn’t give the talk he agreed to (critiquing critical theory), so it was felt that he wouldn’t be a trustworthy guest on the panel. Seemed wise to me.” Later Dickinson posted, “I’m not an outsider. I was involved in the conversations. Calvin proved himself unreliable in his keynote session, so they thought it best to leave him off the closing panel (without any criticism of all).” That last parenthetical comment must refer to “public” criticism since clearly the organizers had a great deal to criticize. No public announcement was made or has been made by Mere Anglicanism. Fr. Robinson did not appear on the panel and that was that.
The panel itself seems to have been disastrous. Sam Allberry, when asked about attending gay weddings, reportedly said that a Christian could attend so long as the couple knew about his objections. Nobody on the panel objected and, when Bishop Chip Edgar joined the panel, he said, according to eyewitness accounts, that he agreed with the sentiments expressed. Classical Christian teaching, by contrast, would say that such weddings are blasphemous counterfeits of God’s institution of marriage and since marriage is about the Gospel. As Paul says in Ephesians 5, they are direct attacks against God’s portrait of Christ and his Church. To attend a gay wedding is to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue and to participate in the self destruction of those being falsely joined together. Christian love could never countenance such a thing.
There has still been no official explanation or justification for Fr. Robinson’s dismissal from Mere Anglicanism, but the reasoning seems clear enough. I have attended too many conferences to number and I have been a speaker at many of them. At nearly all of them at least one speaker has failed to meet the expectations of the organizers. I remember one in particular in which the title of the talk had absolutely nothing to do with the talk itself. I have never seen a speaker disinvited for this common infraction. The only legitimate reason I can think of for a Christian conference to disinvite a speaker, and publicly humiliate him in the process, would be for heresy or immorality. Had Fr. Robinson done something terrible in a moral sense or said something that would take him outside the boundaries of the Christian faith, then I could understand and would support dismissing him from the conference. He did not do that.
There seems to have been another kind of “orthodoxy” in play. Fr. Robinson named the elephant in the room. People in high places were angry with him for doing so and decided to pretend that the real issue was that he turned out to be an “unreliable” speaker. If that becomes the official line, it is a lie. He is not an unreliable speaker. What did they expect? His theological and philosophical commitments are and always have been clear. He was an anglo-catholic and is now an Old Catholic. He thinks WO is an abomination and that the Reformation was a disastrous mistake. If you ask him to give a talk about critical theory and its incompatibility with the Gospel, of course he is going to address WO and the Reformation because in his mind they are all bound up together. He is not being dishonest. He truly thinks these things. You might disagree with him, but if you do (as I do about the Reformation, at least), don’t ask Fr. Calvin Robinson to speak at your conference.
The very last thing you should do if you have invited Fr. Calvin Robinson to your conference is disinvite Fr. Calvin Robinson for being Fr. Calvin Robinson. The precarious position the organizers of Mere Anglicanism have put themselves in is that, on the one hand, they have billed the conference as an opportunity for Anglicans to learn and to freely engage various ideas and theologies within the pale of Christian orthodoxy but, on the other hand, it turns out that some ideas and theologies within that pale must not be engaged. Fr. Robinson’s dismissal was a terrible decision and deals a great blow to the intellectual integrity of Mere Anglicanism. But it’s even worse than that. The paradoxical conceit of the ACNA with regard to WO is that the ACNA embraces “dual integrities.” Some favor WO while others do not and everything is supposedly peaceable and fine. The reality, at least the reality made manifest at Mere Anglicanism, is that one “integrity” must not be articulated when those who hold to the other “integrity” are present and in power. How clever of Fr. Robinson to demonstrate the capture of the church by an ungodly ideology.
Image Credit: Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds, 1823, John Constable (1776-1837).